Five months later, I’m back to talking about gender and politics in Suikoden V. If you don’t want to read spoilers for a seven-year-old PS2 game, I suggest you skip this post.
Part II: Falena: On the border of Herland and Prussia
In Part I of this series, I touched on the Suikoden series’ legacy of diverse, compelling, well-written female characters (…and Jilia Blight). This time I’ll shift focus a bit from representation of gender to the intersection of gender and politics.
In terms of JPRGs, the Suikoden series is a little different. It still has your classic elements of role-playing games: spells, swords, monsters, “action-packed” turn-based combat systems, ridiculously beautiful people; except it’s less interested in Epic Battles over The End of the World and more interested in, well, politics.*
Each game typically involves the following sequence of events: protagonist learns of a political/ideological conflict involving his home nation; protagonists finds himself involved in said conflict somewhat against his will; protagonist meets various, um, interesting characters who may or may not expand his view of the world; protagonist makes a decision, which results in him receiving a Rune of Great And Terrible Power™; protagonist builds an army, fights a war, and uses said Rune of Great And Terrible Power™ to bring peace to the land.
Suikoden V follows that formula to a T.
What makes these games memorable (and fun) is their attention to detail and setting. Each game is set in a different part of the same world, with an overlapping cast of characters and geopolitical factors. No two protagonists in the series fight the same battle: each game, each conflict is unique . The original Suikoden is a war of rebellion: peasants and noblemen rising up against an increasingly tyrannical emperor. Suikoden II starts out with a few border skirmishes between two long-warring nations, and then quickly dissolves into a war of subjugation. Suikoden III, well, it’s kind of a mess, but it generally deals with perspective: how the same conflict can be viewed in radically different ways depending on which side you’re on. As for Suikoden IV…um, it has pirates.
Suikoden V has a civil war: a war of ideologies.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Suikoden V is set in the Queendom of Falena. Yes, “queendom,” as in “just like a kingdom, except ruled by a queen.” Falena is, as far as we know, the only queendom in the Suikoden world, which means that it’s ruler is always, without exception, a woman.
The interesting thing is, no one in Falena considers this matriarchy to be at all unusual. In fact, the people of Falena are downright proud of their system. NPCs (non-player characters) early on in the game speak of their queen with great respect and devotion, noting how just and wise Queen Arshtat is, especially in comparison with some of her ancestors. Given the ongoing discussion of women holding positions of leadership in America and elsewhere, the fact that no one in Falena questions Arshtat’s ability to lead because of her Delicate Lady Bits™ speaks volumes.
As head of state, the Queen of Falena holds great responsibility. The Queen’s duties include establishing diplomatic ties with foreign nations, overseeing domestic projects, and ensuring the nation’s prosperity. Along with her husband, who is both the Commander of the Queen’s Knights (the Royal Family’s personal guard) and leader of the nation’s military, the Queen is responsible for securing Falena’s borders from its hostile neighbors. Furthermore, the Queen holds the highest authority in the land: the final arbiter in all matters concerning Falena’s future.
In addition to her duties as Falena’s head of state, the Queen of Falena holds a powerful symbolic role: she exists as a living symbol of Falena’s history. According to Falenan legend, the Queen is descended from a semi-divine figure who brought life to what had once been a barren wasteland. The legend goes: “Long, long ago, a beautiful woman descended from the heavens to [the holy land of] Lunas, together with the Sun Rune. She went on to become the very first Queen of Falena.” Using the power of the Sun Rune, the first Queen of Falena restored the fertility of the land, its soil and rivers, which had been ravaged by the scorching heat of the sun. Her descendants became Falena’s Royal Family, queenship passing from mother to eldest-born daughter with very few exceptions.**
The Sun Rune lies at the heart of Suikoden V. Only the rightful Queen of Falena may bear the Sun Rune, a national treasure, to be sure, yet also one of the 27 True Runes that govern the fate of the Suikoden world (see: “Rune of Great and Terrible Power™ above). As one of the 27 True Runes, the Sun Rune governs the dual aspects of the sun: the power to destroy and the power to heal. When used to destroy, the bearer of the Sun Rune creates a blast of intense heat and light, incinerating all in its path like the blazing sun of the desert. When used to heal, the Sun Rune creates a gentle glow, like the nurturing rays of the sun on a warm summer day.
As mentioned earlier, the civil war in Suikoden V is a war of ideologies. Even before the game begins, the Senate—Falena’s deliberative body—has split into two major factions. On one side, the Godwin Faction, lead by the head of the Godwin family, advocates that the Queen use the destructive power of the Sun Rune against Falena’s enemies, thus becoming a great global power. On the other side of the Senate, the more moderate Barows Faction (also lead by its titular noble family) aims for “domestic and foreign stability without the use of Runes.”
Runic powers aside, this conflict is not unique to the world of Suikoden. Do we focus in strengthening our military, expanding our power and influence on the global scale through force? Or do we build ties through diplomacy, prioritizing domestic spending, balancing the national budget, and focusing on economic prosperity at home. This conversation should sound familiar—not just to American or European or Japanese gamers but to all people everywhere.
In Part III: The political meets the personal
*Also the question of free will vs. destiny, but that’s a separate series of essays.
**Compare with the legend of Japan’s first emperor being a descendant of Amaterasu, the Shinto sun goddess.